Bruce McDonald, director of the new indie neo-noir jazz assassin film Dreamland, joined us to talk about how all that weirdness came to be.
Scix Maddix: Hello.
Bruce McDonald: How are you?
Scix: I’m doing great. So let’s talk about Dreamland!
Bruce: Yeah, man!
Scix: First, let me start by saying I really loved Pontypool and I was very excited to see something new coming out from the same people.
Bruce: Great! Yeah, the same gang: we got Tony [Burgess], Stephen [McHattie], Lisa [Houle]. Got the band back together for this one.
Scix: Was that the prime impetus for the project, to get the band back together? Or did you have the idea first and then collect all the people?
Bruce: You know sometimes when you work on something and you have a great time and things turn out pretty well, then you go, “Let’s do this again!” And it always takes longer than you think. But that was a huge motor, you know, to work with people that you like.
We were inspired by a short film Steve was in called The Deaths of Chet Baker, which is this weird short film where he plays Chet Baker, and it was really good. So I said to Tony: “We should do something with this.” And Tony said, “Well I’ve got an idea,” and he cooked this up. I guess the idea was, let’s imagine what a movie might look like written by a heroin-addicted cool jazz trumpet player in the fading years of his life. That’s what Tones came up with.
Scix: Well I think you succeeded there! And as a quick aside, the soundtrack was wonderful. I think it’s perfect for that tone.
Bruce: Yeah, I was in Toronto and Jonathan Goldsmith was a record guy and a bit of a jazzer, and for the first time I worked with him. Boy, it was fun to see a master composer just go at it! I just didn’t interfere too much and he really grooved with it. It’s really nice when that happens.
Scix: Did you know going into this that Stephen could sing?
Bruce: No! He’s the kind of guy that when he’s on the set he’s always humming a song or singing something, so he loves music. And I think in his acting career he’s been in occasional musicals, so he has sung, but he’s not like a guy with a band or anything. He took it seriously and he picked the song. Originally it was an Alice Cooper song I think, from Killer, or Love It to Death, that was in the script. We tried it because we really loved the idea of doing Alice Cooper, Chet Baker style. But it just didn’t land right in the Chet world, so Stephen said “Hey, how about this Eurythmics track [“I Saved the World Today,”]?” So I listened to it and I was like, “yeah.” The lyrics are actually really a great counterpoint to the mayhem that’s going on in that scene. He was nervous doing it, he wanted to do it well, and we did it a number of times because it’s not an easy thing to not only sing, but to do it in somebody else’s voice.
Scix: One of the first things I did when I was done was check the credits to see if that was actually his voice. I think he did a great job.
Bruce: Well you know, I’m gonna pass that on. He’s still nervous about it. I was like, “Steve, it’s good!” Jonathan coached him through it. I will definitely pass that on to him, I see him fairly often.
Scix: It was perfect for the scene, for the character, and was just well-sung.
Okay, so let’s talk a bit about that mayhem. I saw a very basic synopsis of the film and immediately I was hooked. There’s some very strange elements here. I mean, at its heart, it’s an assassin with a heart of gold story, but then you’ve got a literal vampire, and there’s this sort of madness. Does this connect with the the Pontypool universe at all?
Bruce: It’s funny that you say that because there’s a scene [in Pontypool] and most people don’t see it because it’s right at the very very end of the credits. The original ending for Pontypool actually was going to be like the very end, and our producers thought it was just too weird, it didn’t make any sense. So they said, “Well, what if you put it at the end of the credits?” That was our compromise. It’s there, in the in the very end, this little coda, and the character, Stephen, dressed up as Johnny Deadeyes, he’s this killer. And there’s the gun on the table, and he’s sitting in a sushi bar with Lisa the Killer. They have this little sort of Raymond Chandler exchange with tough guy, moll talk: “Hey, baby, what’s your name, meet a Killer. I’m Johnny Deadeyes!” “Where we going Johnny?” “We’re going all the way, we’re going to kick boots to the free world baby!” You know, just some crazy talk.
And that was always sitting there. And with Tony, when we got the Chet Baker slice of the pie, that was in play. He just took that and said, “Okay, I’m gonna take these two characters and there’ll be the other two with Chet.”
I don’t know where the vampire came from exactly, but yeah, Pontypool was the mama bear of this film because these creators and this weird little twist. In Pontypool we always had this notion: we never quite knew how to do it, but the idea with the viruses was, viruses leap. Right? And so we thought, what if the virus leaped from actual language into reality itself? That’s why we came up with this weird sushi bar ending, it was like suddenly like the whole fabric changed and suddenly they’re in a sort of weird gangster movie. But we didn’t really have the plot math ready to justify that, it was sort of an impulse.
Anyway, yeah, it’s very much from that universe. Pontypool’s quite mad as well in this conceptual way of language viruses and all that.
Scix: Oh sure, and the expanded universe of Pontypool Changes Everything [the book by Tony Burgess that the story of Pontypool came from].
Scix: There’s such a range of stories happening in that weird little town.
Scix: It felt like a natural fit to me, to have this this weird gangster /assassin / jazz noir / vampire story. It just fit right in to me.
Bruce: That’s why we love Tony Burgess. You should talk to Tony at some point, he’s the brains behind the operation. You know he writes more novels and he lives up north of the city and there’s these guys he works with that make these weird little movies. They knock them out for just a couple hundred grand. There’s a film called Septic Man, which was on some blog or website voted the 17th worst film ever made.
Scix: Oh that’s high honor.
Bruce: That’s pretty good, right?
Bruce: There’s another one called Hellmouth that Stephen is in, and a weird thing about that film is that Stephen also plays two characters. It’s a crazy, insane movie that came and went, but it was all shot in green screen and they spent three years with Korean dudes making backgrounds and stuff, it’s great. It’s quite an insane thing. So that probably has something to do with this movie too, because Tony tends to cross collateralize his ideas from project to project you know?
Scix: Yeah, definitely. And for the record, I would love to talk to him at some point, if that ever comes to pass I’d be fairly pleased.
Bruce: Yeah, you let me know and we’ll hook you up.
Scix: That’d be amazing. Let’s talk a bit about the two characters being played by one actor: I guess, basically, why?
Bruce: Well, that’s a good question, and I’m still trying to answer that myself. When it came up with the producers, that was their question: why? And I’m like, “Well, I don’t know, it’s a dream.” The rules, though, are that they should look the same. They shouldn’t be so disguised that you don’t know that it’s the same guy. Tony said it’s got to be clear that it’s the same person. Different costuming but it’s the same face. And the other rule was that nobody comments on it, nobody goes “hey, you guys look the same!”
So those are the two rules going into it, and the why-ness of it? I think it comes from William Burroughs or it comes from, I don’t know, semiotics or something. I have no idea but it’s like doubling and and mirrors. I don’t know, I really don’t know why there’s two, except that it’s called Dreamland, so it makes sense in Dreamland. I’m sorry I can’t give you a better answer than that.
Scix: That’s a fine answer.
Bruce: It just added this weirdness to it.
Scix: I like that you mentioned that there are rules, because I think sometimes in film there’s weirdness sort of scattered in but no thought to how the weirdness works. And in both Dreamland and Pontypool there are clearly underlying rules, even if the audience doesn’t always know them.
Bruce: Yeah, it’s really important. There’s a weird logic to the ride that you take, things sort of make sense in this illogical way and it worked. The first draft was a bit more scattered, so we did things to join up certain elements. I think in the original draft it wasn’t a wedding, and then we thought, no, it makes sense to make it a wedding. And just little things like that where we joined up things so there’s a strange, not quite supernatural, but sort of entering that world. I remember working on this film years ago that had supernatural elements in it, and I always remember how that can bite you in the ass if you don’t figure out some basic rules for your supernatural world. Because it weirdly has to make some kind of sense. If that makes sense.
Scix: I mean, it does to me! One last question: I was reading the credits carefully I noticed that it claims to be filmed in Dreamland. Where’s Dreamland?
Bruce: Ha ha, “Where’s Dreamland?” I think it exists between Tony’s ears, in his head. That’s the place that we play, that’s where we camped out and used Luxembourg and Belgium as a substitute for Tony’s brain.
Scix: All right, well thanks. If ever I wind up in Dreamland or Pontypool I’ll probably drop in– well, I’m not sure I want to go to Pontypool.
Bruce: Have Tony be your tour guide and he’ll help you find your way out.
Scix: I’d probably want one, it seems like it might be dangerous without a tour guide.
Scix: Thank you, Bruce.
Bruce: It’s a pleasure talking to you.
Scix: Great work, we’ll, we’ll have the interview and review out on HorrorBuzz shortly. I spent a lot of it gushing so…
Bruce: That’s awesome, man, It’s an honor, so thank you so much.
Scix: All right. Until next time.
Bruce: Bye. Thanks for listening.